Should A Writer Get An English Degree, Yes Or No?

This is apparently a question, so I will attempt to address it.

I have no idea what you should or should not do. Every writer tends to carve their own writer-shaped door into the industry, and then they seal it shut behind them, Cask-of-Amontillado-style. (I can make that Poe joke because I was an English major. I have a license for such literary shenanigans; if you are caught making such a pun without the proper degree, you will be hunted.) There exists no One True Way to become a writer except, you know, go read stuff, live a life, and write things down. Keep reading stuff, living your life, and writing things down until you get sorta okay at it, and then later until you maybe get sorta good at it, and hey, ta-da, you’re probably a writer. Maybe even a professional one of some level of success from MEAGER TRILOBYTE to MIDLIST INKSLINGER to GRAND CONQUERING PENMONKEY OF THE REALM.

There, the end, go do it.

*waits*

*notices you’re still here*

Oh, you still want to talk about this English degree thing.

Okay, fine, fine.

You don’t need an English degree. You can get any degree you want. Or no degree. Or two degrees. Fuck it, get three! Or you can drop out of high school. Or be a doctor. Or an engineer. Or a lawyer. Or an international assassin.

I have an English degree.

Just a BA. Never went further.

It did well for me. I never had much trouble getting work, and really, that’s part of the question, isn’t it? This is really a two-part deal: the first is, I want to be a writer, so which program is best to help me learn that skill (and writing is a skill, by the way, one that you can both practice and one that can be enhanced with training). The second part is, but also how do I not starve and die while trying to become a proper penmonkey?

Here’s why you might consider an English degree in that regard.

At the school level, an English degree covers things you ostensibly should love, and it will deepen your appreciation of things like, oh, I dunno, BOOKS and WORDS and STORIES. You will be given a sense of literary tradition from Beowulf on up. But it’s not just Jane Austen and Chaucer, mind you. A well-rounded English program is pretty diverse, and may even let you customize your approach. You’ll learn some history, some journalism, you might learn literary criticism ranging from structuralist crit to feminist crit to all the other schools of criticism. You’ll read poetry, you’ll read essays of early American history, you’ll learn composition and non-fiction, you’ll learn about essays and memoirs and even some technical writing. An English degree was my first exposure to Toni Morrison (who I got to meet and learn from, courtesy of my English program), to Margaret Atwood (*waves*), to James Joyce, Joseph Campbell, to Maus. We studied comic books and mythology and — I mean, it was awesome. I had a great program with (mostly) amazing teachers. Being a writer has been helped by reading deeply and diversely and by getting to see the breadth and depth of the tradition of what I wanted to do.

Then, on the career side of things, English majors do okay. I never had anyone roll their eyes at an English degree on the employment side — I had people in my family or life roll their eyes as if it was a toilet paper degree, but it’s not. Some English majors I know are now lawyers. Some work for huge banks or tech companies, others in marketing and advertising because, y’know, the ability to communicate and write and to know the history of the written word will serve you well across a wide variety of fields. It’s a little like a Swiss Army knife degree — it has a lot of tools packed into it. None of them are single-serving laser-focused, but it allows you to jump into the workforce fairly quickly. I had jobs in advertising, tech, in the library system, all because of one measly-ass English degree. I always did pretty well financially. It was not a bad choice, and most of the English majors I know are in fairly healthy shape, job-wise. Some aren’t using any part of their training, but it also didn’t hurt them. Others are using some of their degree, and others still are successful writers, playwrights, even screenwriters.

So, is it a bad idea?

Probably not. English degree gets you the one-two punch of: COOL WORDSMITHY POWERS and NOT ENTIRELY AWFUL JOB OPPORTUNITIES SO YOU WON’T STARVE AND DIE IMMEDIATELY.

Is it the best idea?

Well, how the fuck do I know? Listen, you as a person have a degree of interests and aptitudes. If you are privileged enough to be able to, find a degree that speaks to the things you like and the things you can do, and ride those things to a degree and to a writing career. History, philosophy, tech, art, whatever. None of them will hurt your writing career, and if you work your ass off and are open to learning, I think you’ll be fine. Especially if you never forget that you want to be a writer, which is to say, write your ass off no matter your degree, no matter your training. Work is the purest, cleanest way to be what you want to be. It isn’t always enough, but it’s how it starts.

You wanna be a writer, be a writer.

You wanna get an English degree, get an English degree.

Wanna wander the Earth like Sad Hulk, wander the Earth like Sad Hulk.

No shame for your choices. Just go and do it, and kick ass in whatever you choose.

58 comments

  • I have a BA in Creative Writing. It was all workshops. I joined a band in my second year of school and pretty much just wrote songs for the next 20 years. I wrote a handful of comics over the last five years. This past year I wrote my fist novel. This might be because I’m too old to play in punk bands anymore. 🙂 I did a BA in English/Creative Writing because it was easy.

  • Seems to me it certainly doesn’t help to have a degree, but isn’t needed. I’ll bet if you look at a list of the highest selling authors of all time, there would only be a handful of them that had degrees. The rest just did as Chuck recommended: read, write, read, write, write, write, read.

    • I think most probably have degrees — though whether they have English degrees, I dunno. King does. GRRM has a comm degree, which is a neighbor. Not sure, Gaiman, Atwood. Tom Clancy got an English degree. Patricia Cornwall: degree in English. Stephanie Meyer, English degree. Anne Rice studied creative writing, I believe. Koontz taught English, not sure re: his degree. That’s just a quick pass of some bestselling authors. I suspect there’s a not-unreasonable concentration of authors who have that degree.

      • Gaiman has an English degree. I know because hes a member of the same English Honor Society I am. I’m one of those writers with an English degree. Currently I’m teaching middle school though as a “day job”.

  • March 10, 2017 at 10:44 AM // Reply

    When I was in the place of choosing what to do with my life, the “future livelihood” thing got to me pretty bad. I come from a poor background and I knew there was only my way I wouldn’t have to worry about what to eat when an adult–if I worked for it myself. So I had to choose in a way that would secure me for yerars, and as much as I’d love for it to be, you know, the writer’s way, well… It’s too much of a gamble. Not too much of work, no, no, no, you have to get down to business and rip your arms out working for anything in this life, so not that. But a gamble. However much you work for it, however much you learn and practice, at some point, when becoming a professional writer, things get out of your hand and get into the hand of another–an agent, a publisher, a reader–and if you don’t have any option B, you only have one shot at this. If you’re unlucky, that’s it, boom, you’re fucked.

    All I’m saying, it’s good to have an option B. It’s good to have a plan B and maybe a plan C and plan D, and in some really tricky situations, plan E is also desirable. I wasn’t blessed with a lot of options, but I was blessed with a lot of different interests. So, I didn’t get an English degree (especially since I live in Poland, haha, got you). I didn’t get a Literature degree either, nor a Journalism degree. I decided that if I was to gamble, I don’t want to play a five-card stud with a piquet deck, I wanna have all the cards at my disposal, so I took the leap and went to vet school. It’s working pretty well so far, aside from, you know, 7 years of my life spent in college. My work as a veterinarian supports my life and allows me to write without a crippling fear of failure (I mean, not having to worry about feeding myself with paper, my fear of failure is now overwhelming at best), and I hope that when I do publish a book, it’ll carry my name further and maybe get me some new clients for the clinic, so it’s a win-win. I got a degree that wasn’t associated with penmanship in any way, and now I like to say I have two jobs I love and am passionate about.

  • I got an English Education degree and never regretted it. I have substitute taught in many school districts at a higher pay grade than someone without a teaching degree. I also went on to get a library science degree. Books!

  • Yup, doesn’t hurt, but doesn’t help you write. ‘Creative Writing’ degrees more useful in learning the craft. Personally, I got to Ph.D in Eng Lit, which made no difference at all to how I write fiction other than it made me a good researcher and obviously increased my reading.

    • March 11, 2017 at 4:41 PM // Reply

      I also got a PhD in English Lit. I feel like I spent the next 10 years unlearning the rather unreadable prose style they worked so hard to teach us. Definitely not a help with writing, but wonderful to spend those extra years immersed in really good books.

  • March 10, 2017 at 10:58 AM // Reply

    For various reasons, I never finished that degree; now that I’m out of the workforce due to age, I doubt it matters. I know many successful writers; some have degrees, some don’t. It’s up to the individual. It can’t hurt, IMO, to know how to use the language properly, but it’s not a necessity, I think.

  • I don’t know if it was an issue if time or place when I graduated, but the attitude was that a degree in arts & humanities would never lead to a job unless it involved a commercial fryer and/or a curly red wig. I ended up in science despite the fact that all the classes I wanted to take were in history, philosophy, and English. It’s a good paying job, and I did come back to writing (20 yrs later), but still.

      • I started taking classes again a couple of years ago. This time I wanted classes that interested me and would be in line with my writing. So, I took classes in natural disasters, writing, and terrorism, and planned to take some in criminal justice. Then I realized all my savings was going to school instead of my house fund, so… ah well. Good for you doing it all at the time, though! I wish I had.

  • I just completed my BA in English/Creative Writing degree this month. I have over three decades of IT work and management, but since I had a lot of medical issues I branched off towards writing and (possibly) teaching again. As an older person, the degree was a decent refresher and did help to expand my writing skills.

  • No English degree, but shoots up hand for engineering.

    I think there’s a common theme amongst writers of all backgrounds – the ability to string some words together to make a more-or-less sensible sentence. And that, perhaps, most of those with the intellectual capability of studying for a degree understand English as a language, understand communication, getting an idea across to another, with words.

    Storytelling is different, and needs the old read – read – read – write – read – write thing going on. And the desire to do it, and to keep doing it, no matter what anyone else says.

    And then, still further, the depths of themes and voice and subtext can all be learnt through critical analysis and practice, if you have the desire.

  • I have a BS in literal BS, otherwise known as I Wanna Write And I Know I Don’t Have to Have A Degree to Do That. I also got an MFA. My education was worth every penny it cost. In my graduate program at SHU, I met other writers and learned more than I ever did at my lifetime school of hard knocks. I learned that I am truly a horror writer, where I was previously only willing to publicly embrace my romance writing persona. Now, I’m teaching writing and still writing my own stuff. The MFA gets me into academia, where I make way more money than I would at any other part time job I could get. And my schedule is perfect.

  • English major here. Wound up working as an administrative assistant, then as a technical writer for years and was remunerated handsomely before making the transition to full-time fiction writer. Like you said, it’s up to the individual and what they want to do, but having an English degree certainly isn’t going to harm employment chances. Being able to string words together in a clear, effective manner is still a hella salable skill.

  • Another factor to consider: Writing (and other creative field work) is not what you’d call financially stable employment. Feast or Famine, in cycles.

    Given the fact that most degree-granting institutions of higher education are primarily designed as Debtor-Class Manufacturing Plants (the average student is graduating with $30K in debt, and far more for graduate-level degrees), you might want to reconsider the efficacy of that English Degree to your work, since you’re going to be starting 30K+ in the hole as a result.

    • But that’s one of those fallacies — an English degree, as I point out, actually isn’t a career dead-end. Now, there’s real question of whether or not you want *any* college debt on your shoulders given how expensive it is, but statistically, those with English degrees do okay, roughly in the middle of the pack. English as a degree, again as noted, *can* be very versatile, so. It’s not just for Book Writers. Lot of people in tech have English degrees. People in offices, English degrees. Libraries, schools, labs, marketing companies, etc.etc. — English degrees.

      • No, that’s not what I’m saying — I’m saying that if your intention is to be a penmonkey as your day job, you need to consider the additional debt load.

        Yeah, you can get a job with an English degree. Absolutely. But you’ll still end up in debt to get it — and working off that debt will definitely delay the leap to full-time writing.

        It’s true of most creative careers — the choice becomes “do I want a degree related to the thing I really want to do with my life, if it means that I’m going to have to spend longer doing things I *don’t* want to do, in order to pay off the debt achieved by getting the degree?”

        • Oh, yeah, absolutely true. Though that’s more true if your goal is to be a *creative* penmonkey, as it’s easy (er, easier) to get a job writing Non-Creative Copy for various corporate entities.

          It’s always a case of juggling and balancing.

          • I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t be telling high-school graduates who want a creative profession that they’d be better off finding a professional who works in the field they’re interested in, and offer that professional like 1/3 of the money that college would cost, to show them the ropes for a couple of years.

            They could come out of the process with more applicable knowledge, and less debt… and I don’t know any pros who wouldn’t consider a paid mentoring gig.

        • The degree I just finished this month was covered by VA Vocational Rehabilitation, so there are ways to get it done without going into debt.

    • Excellent point. Big reason I ended up in a science field was that I could graduate with no debt and have a job with guaranteed health insurance. Just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get back to writing on the side as well.

  • English degree, lit not creative writing: super useful to me as a writer. It forced me to read a lot of things, and to articulate my thinking, and mostly to write, all the time on subjects I wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. The critical analysis skills were the most valuable thing I got from the degree. The subsequent graduate degree in English crushed my soul to the point that I didn’t write anything creative for, oh, *years*, but I think that’s just a feature of grad school.

    I did manage a coffee kiosk for a year after grad school (I needed to be Not Sitting Down), but then I got into administration of soft money NASA grants (more cool stuff to learn), and eventually into teaching rhetoric and composition in a university, so: the degree is also employable.

  • On the other hand, if you want to write science fact or fiction, it really helps to have a science-based degree, and preferably an inter-disciplinary one. And read books–sometimes books that aren’t science, for a change 🙂

  • March 10, 2017 at 1:44 PM // Reply

    I wasn’t able to attend college for a multitude of reasons. However, I was blessed to find a mentor freshly retired from his english department chair position at CUNY. The “education” I received as his friend refined my craft. I look at my english education as an apprenticeship and although I haven’t experienced the world of academia I think it was and is a better way to learn writing, criticism & critical thinking skills for me. Overall, the truth here is simply exposure to the craft and a mind built for the talent of writing. How you get there in the end has more to do with individual personalities and voices than the codifying of the craft by colleges and universities.

  • I graduated college in ’79 with a BA in English and a journalism minor, and worked in newspapers as a reporter, columnist and editor for several years. My major and minor served me well in journalism, and in the rest of my working life. Due to medical problems that began 20 yrs ago, I’m unable to work now, but I do freelance book reviews. This helps me a lot with fiction writing. As Chuck inferred, the path is different from one person to the next. As my dear late mother was fond of saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • My degree isn’t in English, but the oft mocked Communications BA. You know, the major “the team” took – *sigh.* It was actually very heavy on writing and editing. I honestly think it helped me with my first book, which was published a few years ago. But I have to say thanks to all the editor monkeys out there, especially on days like today when there isn’t enough coffee in the universe.

    Chuck, totally want “Midlist Inkslinger” on an exceedingly large coffee mug.

  • March 10, 2017 at 2:26 PM // Reply

    MA English lit here, BA English lit (history minor) with creative writing/non-fiction/journalism classes.

    Did it help my writing? Oh hell yeah. All that reading! Plus I wrote my fingers off, figuratively speaking of course, most often in response to what I read. Couple short story classes told me I could come up with stuff and write it in an interesting way. But it was my master’s thesis (186 double-spaced pages) that told me I’m capable of finishing something that long–it was torture. It was practice for the novel, that’s for sure. Did I need the MA? No, but I was planning to teach as my side gig while I wrote, which didn’t work out very well; adjuncts don’t get far and get paid shit where I’m from unless…various factors.

    But I don’t think an English degree is necessary to be a writer. Of course not. Sure, so many bestselling/famous writers have English or related degrees. But most important is that writers read. Is any writer *not* a reader?

  • I was put off by my English degree, to an extent. My professor, when he discovered I wanted to write, told me to model myself on Jane Austen. And although I love Austen, well, that’s not me. And it gave me unreasonably high standards and I was daft enough to not realise that writing takes hard work and revision – at least, mine does.

    I did get there in the end, mind – after thirty odd years of procrastination, my first novel was published last year.

    Of course, it’s entirely possible I’d have taken that long of I’d studied archaeology, or psychology.

  • “a Swiss Army knife degree” Yesyesyesyesyesyesyes!
    I have a BA & a Masters (although nobody calls me Master so I am not sure why the fuck I did that) in English.
    I now am the only Human in a building full of scientists who can use Words. They come to me humbly with tattered pages scratched in pencil and stammer pleas for help. I used a semicolon in a report once and sweartagod they all gathered around, all these white lab coated sciencey people who work with bubbling beakers and all the machines NCIS Abby has and they were gobsmacked by the semicolon.

    It is a subtle superpower, yet deep.

  • Got a degree in psychology and spent several years working in various corporate HR roles. If anything, I think both the degree and career experience have contributed to my attention to detail in character analysis/development. Speaking of characters, try working in Recruitment, you meet all kinds!

  • Husband and I have talked about this extensively. I have a BA in English, went the traditional route through school. School newspaper, journalism courses, internship, ground floor publishing job and now freelance writing. He dropped out of college, worked in tech support for years and then just recently retrained into computer programing through a three month boot camp course. He makes more money than I do, but different sectors being what they are I don’t feel bad about it.

    We sometimes like to play the “what if” game. What if I hadn’t gone to college, what if he had. I always tell him college is just the path I took because I had the support system for it. Had I not gone, I like to think I would have learned writing through seminars, self-study and good ol’ fashioned practice. College is a HUGE financial burden, so you have to weigh practical value against the monetary burden. If you’re a scrappy sort who’s great at networking and self-directed to boot, it might not be worth the financial burden. If you could use more of a support system and writing community, and you have the means, a college degree from a place with a decent writing program can help. I does widen your view and open some doors, but it’s not the only way forward.

  • “(I can make that Poe joke because I was an English major. I have a license for such literary shenanigans; if you are caught making such a pun without the proper degree, you will be hunted.) ” I see the get the reference and the joke, but where precisely is the pun. I can axe such a question because I got a degree in English…

  • Where the heck were you when I was banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to go to school for? I did a little of every thing and got a degree in nothing–ended up driving a truck. But hey–I know where all the cool stuff is in this country, so lots to write about.

  • BA in English here, MA in linguistics, but I earn my keep with the two-year nursing degree I went back to school for after my kids were born. I’m still writing, though. If you love to write, you will write. If you want to write well, studying writing doesn’t hurt. One thing I have noticed: when I submit my novel to publishers, they take me a little more seriously because of the English and linguistics degrees, and the 10 years I spent in journalism.

  • BA in psychology and MA in Creative Writing. Did they help? Absolutely, and from a number of different standpoints. The psych undergrad helped with character development and general story ideas/plotting and the MA with getting a really rounded grip on the writing process much faster than I would have otherwise. Was there a fair amount of BS in the MA process? Yep. Studied under some people who helped only from a ain’t gonna-do-it-that-way perspective. But where it really did help was the intensity of focus that forced me to think like a successful writer from the viewpoint of one. It all led to three books in a historical trilogy, a standalone women’s/book club novel, and plans for a multi-book middle school series (with several written) – and best of all, an agent who truly believes in my work. It was worth it to me.

  • I did Literature with an emphasis on pre and early modern (aka all the myth and classics that feed into storytelling). Exposure to all of that story plus literary criticism definitely helped me as a writer. I then did a masters in library/information science and work as an archivist (history has even better stories!) which feeds me perfectly fine while writing on the side.

    Basically it’s the same as any other major. How useful it is depends on what you want to DO with it. Everyone poo poohs art majors too, but some of my more successful friends did graphic design in college and leveraged that into web/marketing work or mobile/console game design.

  • I’ve studied a few degrees; one of them is a BA in English and Creative writing. It was a great course for the way it masterfully wove the work of writing around the history of the world. Politics, economics, science, revolution, love, oppression: it was all there. It really helped to highlight how there are pedigrees of ideas and storytelling in every sort of public speech you might hear.

    I also relished the skill and insights of teachers and fellow students when time came to critique work. So much so in fact, that I miss the meatiness of those discussions, and have yet to find a writing community that replaces the experience on a professional level, and doesn’t seem like a self-help group. Miss it dearly.

    Anyhow, the degree is viewed favourably by any employer who has need of wordsmiths. I don’t regret doing it. So if you can do it, and you really want to do it, go ahead and do it. Ignore what your uncle Jack or whoever has to say about English degrees. And if you’re not going to study, remember that the degree doesn’t give you permission to write. Go ahead and write your heart out anyway, and keep ignoring uncle Jack’s dumb jokes about writers.

    *inserts token sarcastic literary in-joke advice about how important it is for your career path to look like Yeats’ Gyre because Chuck started it*.

    P.S.: I do not actually have an uncle called Jack.

  • I have a PhD in Geology.
    When I was a kid there were two things I loved: adventure stories and books about dinosaurs and explorers.
    So when the time came, I asked myself, do I want to write adventure stories, or do I want to hunt dinosaurs?
    And I went for the dinosaurs, because being a writer was not a way to make a living, they told me.
    his was thirty-odd years ago.
    About one year ago, and for reasons long to explain, I lost everything – including my paying gig as a geologist. And if it is true that bankruptcy looms closer by the day, it is also true that I’ve been paying my bills these last ten months by writing – articles, adventure stories, game scenarios… anything.
    And here’s a probably on-topic bit: when Iost my job, I asked a colleague if he had any pointers, you know, for a 49 years old unemployed geologist, and this fifty-something well employed geologist gave me a wide grin and replied to me: “you can go and flip burgers at McDonalds”.
    But I did not, if for no other reasons because there’s not a burger joint in a 25 miles range here where I live.
    So I started writing fast. In English – and English is not even my native language.
    Life’s full of twists and turns.

  • I only got a B.A. in English to satisfy myself – nearly 20 years after I dropped out of college with the self-imposed promise to return at some undisclosed future date to finish it. I specifically got my English degree in Professional Writing, which generally means I can put many so-called professional journalists to shame (something I already could do, after years of writing in my journals and composing letters to the “Dallas Morning News.”) It’s one of those personal moments that only I can understand. People will do what they feel they need to do to become whole and complete. For me, it was earning a college degree. I like writing – period! Creative writing and technical writing. I now earn my living as a freelance technical writer. I help people communicate their ideas into coherent, logical verbiage. As a creative writer, I help people comprehend the world around them. It’s simply who I am.

  • I have an M.A. in History. The liberal-arts education did certainly teach me about how to write, and especially how to do research; it even helped a bit with WHAT to write.

    As to employability … M.A. because I was considering working in academe, but by the time I was wrapping up the degree (which took six years because I was paying for it myself while working full-time, and my first thesis went belly-up for various reasons) the market for M.A. history teachers was approximately zero anywhere in the country. And my appetite for pursuing a Ph.D. was nonexistent. So I got a job in a law office, and I’ve been working in law offices ever since.

    I have thought, many times, that going the liberal-arts route was – for me – lazy. In order to get those degrees, I did what I like to do, which is read. But I was going to read anyway. I would have been writing anyway; I’d been writing stories since I was ten. I simply coasted into a field in which I could achieve the goal with relatively low effort.

    My brain would have been better-served (and I might have been able to secure more interesting employment) if I had gone into engineering. At the time I was being counseled (HAHAHAAA) for college, it didn’t occur to anyone, including me or my engineer father, that engineering was something I might do.

    Anyway, I’m in favor of everyone getting as much education as they want, in whatever field they want. But I would caution people against getting a specific degree just because they think it will help them become a writer. Get the specific degree if you are ALREADY a writer, and want to be a better one.

    Beginning writers are prone to under-editing themselves, and often I think it’s because they don’t know HOW. I mean, how can you not know how to do a copy edit? But, as a romance reader, I know that dozens (at least) of self-pubbed writers don’t.

    It’s like: if you love to draw and paint, get an art degree so that you learn all the background and technique that you might otherwise miss. An art degree won’t help you *want* to paint. It just teaches you how.

  • March 22, 2017 at 5:26 PM // Reply

    I’ve always been partial to Truman Capote’s take on college, “I was determined never to set a studious foot inside a college classroom.”

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